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Miss McMillan

November 22, 2013


Miss Ella McMillan was my first grade teacher.

She was an elderly woman with white hair done up in an old-lady bun. She wore long, old-lady dresses, and round, old-lady glasses. Regardless, she was a kind, patient and tireless teacher we were all blessed to have .

She taught me to read. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.”

She taught me numbers. “One plus one equals two. Two plus two equals four.”

I have two major memories from the first grade, and they both involve her.

One took place in the school cafeteria. The little kids sat at a table near the front, right next to the faculty table. I suppose they thought that was the safest place for us.

I ate my lunch, and talked with my friends. I remember hearing hushed whispers and everybody looked down toward the end of our table. Ben and Frank Jackson, African-American twins in my class, were crying. Huge tears ran down their cheeks, and their eyes were shut, like they were in pain.

One of the khaki-clad maintenance men, a guy named Layton Trask, had this disgusted sneer on his face. I only heard a portion of his ignorant and racist vitriol. I was going to recount what I remember him saying, but I won’t. It was hateful garbage, and I won’t have it on my blog. He was purposely speaking loudly enough for the brothers to hear.

Classmates Mary Gomes and Abigail Sinclair, found Miss McMillan, apprised her of the situation and essentially brought in the cavalry. Miss McMillan marched up to Trask and stood over him. She put her fists on her hips and her head snapped sharply up and down, forward and back with every word she yelled at him. “You are a full-grown man. You should know better. How can you be so cruel, so unfeeling? YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!”

I wish I could say that Miss McMillan’s verbal thrashing made a dent in Layton Trask’s attitude and sensibilities, but I believe he remained a major piece of work for the rest of his life.

I can still see her in her righteous fury. With me, she will always hold hero status of mythic proportions.

The other, even more vivid memory happened on a fall day, exactly fifty years ago today, We came in after recess and were at our desks. Miss McMillan was late in getting to the room. That was odd, as she was always punctual. Suddenly, the door opened, and there she was, accompanied by two women from the school office. They whispered to her, she shook her head, and then slowly made her way to the front of the class.

“Boys and girls,” she began, her voice brittle and unsure, “Something terrible has happened.” She took a breath and continued, “President Kennedy was shot, and k…” Her head went into her cupped hands and her shoulders began to quake. Instantly, the two concerned women at the door rushed to Miss McMillan’s side to steady and console her.

One of the women looked at us, as she gently rubbed Miss McMillan’s back, “The busses are waiting for you. School is over. You’re all going home now.”

As the years continue to slip inexorably past me, some memories become either elusive or missing all together. But the things I remember about Miss McMillan remain as clear as if they happened last week.

  1. Dude that was so cool. You made me go back in time. I remember exactly where I was too.

  2. Like they say, JFK assassination or 911—you remember everything about when you heard the news. Epic cultural trauma does that I guess. Whoa! I feel another haiku coming on…

  3. Heidi Winter permalink

    Very nicely said Ernie! Sounds like you had a great 1st grade teacher! I remember coming home from Kindergarten and having my Mom crying next to our brand new maple “stereo” telling me the president had been shot and killed.

    • Thanks, Heidi. It was an awful weekend. I remember my parents watching television coverage and my mom crying and my dad being angry. John F. Kennedy was the first and only president that I ever knew him to like. He never had a kind thing to say about any presidents that followed.

      Oh, and Miss McMillan was a peach!

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